The Nebraska Supreme Court has rejected the city of Fremont's arguments for blocking a public vote on a controversial immigration ordinance.
The 7-0 outcome appears to clear the way for a special election on a proposal that would, among other things, prevent landlords from "knowingly or recklessly" renting to undocumented tenants.
"My guess is that there would be an election sometime this summer," Fremont City Attorney Dean Skokan said Friday.
The measure, advanced toward the ballot by petitions with more than 3,000 signatures, also would require Fremont police to check the legal status of potential occupants of rental housing and to issue occupancy licenses.
Kris Kobach, attorney for the petitioning group, called the unanimous court outcome "a great victory for the citizens of Fremont."
Now, Kobach said, "the people of Fremont will be allowed to vote on the issue that they petitioned for and that's to stop employment and harboring of illegal aliens in the city."
Fremont's potential link to tougher immigration enforcement started to take shape in city council debate in 2008. That's when the council deadlocked 4-4 on language similar to what's now headed for the ballot.
The Nebraska Supreme Court got involved after a district judge refused to rule on constitutionality and other city arguments ahead of an election.
Justices sided with the district judge Friday.
"The district court correctly determined that it did not have subject matter jurisdiction to determine the substantive constitutional challenge to the Measure unless and until it is approved by the voters," the justices said.
Kobach, based in Kansas City, Mo., and a prominent voice in immigration lawsuits across the United States, predicted Fremont's legal sanctions would stand up to the constitutionality test.
"We may have a battle in court when the voters of Fremont approve it," he said, "but I'm confident, at the end of the day, we will prevail."
The proposed language also requires employers to sign up for E-Verify, a system of checking the validity of citizenship documents against a federal data base.
Kobach also was watching closely Friday to see whether Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer would sign a bill requiring police to question people about their immigration status if there's reason to suspect they're in the country illegally.
Brewer signed the bill into law later Friday.
Skokan declined to comment on the constitutionality outlook in Fremont.
That's because now that the city's challenge has been turned back, he may have to defend the ordinance in court.
Skokan acknowledged the police department is likely to have an enforcement role if the ordinance takes effect. "Whether that rises to the level of determining immigration status or seeking a determination from the federal government is an open question."
Kristin Ostrom, co-chairwoman of Nebraska is Home Fremont, thinks that community group's efforts toward ethnic unity may be helping to ease immigrant tensions in a city of 25,000.
"We may decide that we don't want to be the community that battles the uphill battle of changing from federal enforcement of immigration to local enforcement of immigration," Ostrom said.
One reason why is that "the cost of it may weigh very heavy."
The Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch might be an example of the burden of court-related costs. Efforts there to fine landlords for renting to illegal immigrants were recently struck down as unconstitutional, according to Associated Press reports, although the city council has authorized an appeal.
But Kobach said there is legal precedent for Fremont's approach elsewhere in the United States. "The city is merely prohibiting what is already prohibited under federal law."